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Ten Rules for Democratic Success in Midterm Elections

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The political conventional wisdom has already concluded that Democrats will suffer major losses in November midterm elections. Indeed, if the election were held today, that might be true. There have been very few midterms in modern political history where the party that holds the White House has not lost a lot of seats in the first midterm after its President first took office.

But there are six months and a great deal that Democrats can do to succeed this fall.

Rule #1: Keep our eyes on the prize. Democrats have four goals in the coming midterms that should define our allocation of financial and political resources. In descending order of importance they are:

  • Maintain control of both houses of Congress. Loss of control of one of the two houses would be a catastrophic blow to achieving a transformative progressive political agenda.
  • Assuring our ability to actually pass progressive legislation. All Democratic seats are not created equal. We lost 34 Democratic votes on the recently passed health care legislation. Obviously the loss of ten Members who voted yes for the legislation would be a much bigger problem for the health care agenda than the loss of ten "no" votes. That means that all things being equal, our resources should be focused on candidates that support the President's agenda rather than those who consistently vote no. Let's face it, from a legislative point of view, nobody noticed when Alabama's Parker Griffith suddenly became a Republican instead of a Democrat - he always voted like a Republican anyway.
  • Use the elections to prove that support for a progressive agenda is good politics. Of course succeeding in the first two goals will go a long way to generate that kind of narrative. But our resources should be focused with special concern to show Members of Congress that the Party as a whole - and Progressives in particular - have the backs of the Members that stood tall for progressive values even though they represented marginal districts.

    At the same time, it would be enormously useful if we made examples of several Members who abandoned that agenda - especially those that represent safe Democratic seats. Several come to mind where the filing deadline for the Democratic primary has not yet passed. And as Niccolo Machiavelli noted, you don't have to punish all of your enemies - just hang one in the public square.

  • Take beachheads for Democratic power. As we maximize the goals above, we should remember that it is almost always better to elect any Democrat to any district than to elect a Republican. That's especially true in areas where we need to build a Democratic presence over the long haul. Two examples come to mind. In Illinois' 13th Congressional District, Scott Harper is challenging Republican Judy Biggert. The 13th District includes big portions of Illinois' DuPage County that has a growing Democratic base. Electing a Democratic Congressman there would greatly strengthen the ability of Democrats to win state and local office by strengthening the Party's infrastructure and presence there.

    The other is Florida's heavily Cuban 25th District that has been dominated by Republicans but is trending more Democratic. Joe Garcia, who did well there last cycle against an incumbent, is considering a run for what is now an open seat. A victory there would help Democrats continue to woo young Cuban Americans away from their traditional Republican roots.

Rule #2: Midterm elections are all about turnout. In 1994 Democrats did not lose control of Congress because of a huge swing among persuadable voters. We lost because Republican voters turned out, and ours stayed at home.

That means two things.

  • First, for the next six months we have to be all about inspiring the Democratic base. Of course victory in legislative battles is itself enormously inspiring. The polling shows that the health care reform victory caused the level of "intensity" among Democratic voters to pull even with Republicans. We have to continue winning. And we have to continue to draw clear distinctions between our positions and those of the Republicans - particularly on issues where we have the high political ground, such as holding the big Wall Street Banks accountable. For immigrant voters - and especially Latinos - we have to deliver on fixing the broken immigration system.
  • Second, we have to remember that turnout is about execution. Studies show that one knock on the door within 72 hours of the election increases the propensity to turn out by 12.5% -- a second knock, almost as much. One of the most powerful messages in the upcoming election is: "I won't get off your porch until you vote." Field operations must have a bigger priority this cycle than ever before.

Rule #3: We can't afford to allow the Republicans to make the midterms a referendum on Democratic performance. It must be framed as a choice between the failed Republican policies of the past and the Democratic program to lay a foundation for sustained, widely-shared economic growth.

Bush and the Republicans created an economic disaster in America. It will take a long time to clean that mess up. We must frame every discussion in terms of the choice between the failed policies that got us here, and our policies for the future.

That means two things:

  • First, we have to deliver. Until last week, the Republican hoped their winning narrative would be that Democrats can't deliver - that Washington is gridlocked. Passage of health care and student loan reform helped closed the book on that story. But we have to continue delivering - not just talking.
  • And, of course, by Election Day, people need to see clear evidence -- even glimmers -- that those policies are working in their own lives and those of their neighbors. Reports and pronouncements from Washington won't be enough.

Rule #4: We have to frame the debate in clear populist terms -- about who is on your side. By Election Day people will still be unhappy. If we don't focus that anger on the people who really caused this economic disaster, they will blame Democrats, who are in charge of the Government.

The narrative is very simple. And it has the enormous advantage of being 100% true. The recklessness of the big Wall Street Banks and their Republican allies cost seven million Americans their jobs. Democrats want to hold the big Wall Street Banks accountable and throw out the Republican policies that put the interests of the Banks and other special interests like health insurance companies ahead of the public interest.

It will be great if we can point to new laws to hold the big Wall Street Banks accountable. But it is critical that we draw a clear distinction between our positions and the interests of Wall Street. Wall Street - and the overgrown financial sector in general - should always be the chief villain in our political narrative.

Rule #5: The outcome of midterm elections are hugely dependent on the popularity of the President. History shows that whether Members of Congress vote with him or not, his popularity impacts the ambient level of their support. That means that Members of Congress have an enormous personal political interest in passing his agenda. And many need to remember that if the political tide goes out, it is those in the shallowest political water who will be left aground.

Rule #6: In midterm elections, whichever party nationalizes the contest almost always wins. In 2002, the Democrats made the giant mistake of trying to "localize" the midterms -- to focus on local issues -- while Republicans generated a national narrative. Republicans expanded their margins in the House and re-took control of the Senate. A national narrative is key to victory.

Rule #7: No flip-flops. But that doesn't mean that the qualities of individual candidates aren't important. Democratic Members of Congress need to remember the story of John Kerry's Presidential campaign. Swing voters agreed with Kerry on the issues. But the Republicans convinced them (incorrectly) that he was a "flip-flopper" -- that he had "voted for it before he voted against it" -- that he didn't have a moral center. Commitment is an independent variable in politics and it is especially important to swing voters -- who by definition are not strongly wedded to partisan positions. When people say they hate "typical politicians" they mean they hate candidates who put a finger in the air to test the political winds before they tell you where they stand. They want public officials who have core beliefs and stand up for them.

That's why it was so stupid for some Democrats who had voted for the health care reform bill in the first House vote last year to vote against it this time. Their new vote won't matter to hardcore "Obamacare" haters - the Republicans will say they voted for it anyway. But for swing voters their flip-flop is disastrous. The Republicans will run ad after ad reminding swings that Congressman X is a flip-flopper. And of course - in the bargain - their vote served to demobilize their base and will ultimately depress Democratic turnout. Not so smart.

Rule #8: Stay on the offensive. Throughout the next six months, Democrats must stay on offense. We must go after Republicans for the failed policies of the past that led to the recession. We must stay on the offense campaigning for our solutions. They will obstruct and do everything they can to create diversion (e.g. death panels) and generate fear. We can't take their bait.

Rule #9: Keep winning. People vote for - and turn out for - winners not losers. The bandwagon is also a critical independent variable. Winning, by itself, increases candidate favorability. The progressive bandwagon is now out of the mud and rolling again. We can't let up. We have to press our advantage to win on financial reform, fixing the broken immigration system, clean energy and jobs - as well as appointments and remaking education reform. Process won't matter at all to voters. Even the "process" debates of the last few weeks have already begun to fade. No one cares about how something is done... only that it is done and how it affects them.

Rule #10: It's the economy, stupid. In the end the most important variable in affecting the midterm elections will be people's personal perception of whether the economy is improving for them and their families. The Administration and Congress must focus like a laser on creating jobs - even at the expense of higher short-term federal deficits. And voters need to see Democrats fighting for jobs with every ounce of their energy.

Everything that can be done, should be done, but small-ball "jobs" initiatives are not likely to be enough. America needs another major signature jobs initiative like Congressman George Miller's proposal to directly create a million additional jobs.

A major jobs initiative is not only good politics - it is absolutely good economics. The only way to kickstart broadly-shared economic prosperity is to assure that there are enough jobs that pay a good living wage. "Top-down" simply won't work.

A lot of political water will flow under the bridge between now and November 2nd. In large measure the outcome of the midterm elections is in our hands. If Democrats do what we need to do, there is no question that we have the ability to achieve our goals and set the stage for continued progressive success in the two years leading up to the Presidential election in 2012.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.